The Best of Batman: The Animated Series

Batman fans rejoice, for one of the greatest Batman films ever made, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, will finally be released on some quality Blu-ray. With the 25-year celebration of the genius animated series, looks like the good ol’ folks at the Blu-ray company decided to throw some true Dark Knight fans a bone, and while no specific date has been set for the release, it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser. So while we bask in the glory that is this news, we noble clown princes and princesses over here at The Pop Break decided to throw a bit of a celebration of our own with a list of some of the best and most must-watch episodes the series has to offer. Some you may recognize (though if you haven’t heard of “Mad Love” by now, I simply cannot help you) and some you may not recognize. So sit back, relax, and smile as we run down some of our favorite Batman: The Animated Series episodes. –Laura Dengrove

Laura Dengrove – “Harley and Ivy”

I love Harley (I have a tattoo of her and everything), but what do I love about her, you may ask? Well, her and Poison Ivy, of course! This is one of the most female empowered episodes of not only this show, not only this time, but of all of time and TV in general. We see two women actually help one another and bring out the best, instead of tearing each other apart like many shows would love to see women do. We see two women not only stop Batman, but kick cat callers’ asses, and even get the Joker jealous at their skills. We also begin to see and our introduced to one of the best tag team duos the comic book universe has ever seen.

Harley and Ivy to this day, because of this episode, are usually paired up and Ivy tries to help Harley overcome her obsession with the man who has abused her for years. Yes, it is true that some more recent plot lines have made them somewhat friends with benefits, and it is most likely true that Ivy is in love with Harley, but does that really matter at the end of the day? No, what matters here is the true love, friendship, and respect they have for one another on a non-sexual aspect.

For me, that is more progressive than most of the entertainment that has been shoved down our throats on a daily basis. So thank you, Harley and Ivy, for showing me that not only can I do anything, but I can do it better than most men wish they could.

M.J. Rawls – “Perchance to Dream”

Imagine a world without Batman, so to speak. This is one of my favorite episodes because it shows an alternative world where Bruce Wayne has everything. He has Selena Kyle as his wife, his parents are alive, and he still has his fortune intact. However, this still isn’t good enough. Somebody in this dream world has taken up the mantle of Batman. It frustrates him to the point of inner-chaos because he and the Bat are one.

Another reason it’s one of my favorites is the choice of the Mad Hatter as the villain. Now, I know that bad guys like the Joker and Two-Face will take up the bulk of the Batman danger real estate, but how about one that can make “dreams” seem like reality? As a big fan of Alice in Wonderland, I love the dialogue that hearkens back to that story. Even in a place where Batman has everything he wants, what feels like “home” is being the cold Caped Crusader. It’s funny that a villain wants to give that all to him just so he can go away.

Marisa Carpico – “The Demon’s Quest, Parts I & II”

As my first introduction to Ra’s al Ghul, this two-parter was, to say the least, formative. I was a little over five years old when this episode aired and it felt like such a grown-up story, and not just because the moment when Ra’s al Ghul’s henchmen rip off Batman’s shirt was the most openly erotic thing I’d probably seen at that point in my life.

The first part is largely a misdirect, in which Ra’s kidnaps Robin and then sends Bruce/Batman on a wild goose chase to test his physical and mental abilities. The second is a strange mix of a standard hero-villain showdown and a really screwed up romance. Watching it now, it’s impossible to deny how much of an influence the episodes had on my concept of a good action-adventure story: the shades of James Bond, the story elements Arrow successfully copied in its third season, even the bizarre and problematic appeal of Talia’s steadfast devotion to Bruce. Thank goodness I outgrew that last one.

Josh Sarnecky – “Heart of Ice” 

“Heart of Ice” remarkably took a C-list villain and turned him into one of the greatest members of Batman’s rogues gallery. That isn’t hyperbole; that’s fact. Prior to this Emmy-winning episode, Mr. Freeze was nothing more than a gimmicky bad guy, but writer Paul Dini and director Bruce Timm successfully transformed the scientist formerly known as Victor Fries into a menacing yet truly tragic character.

While the villain’s portrayal by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the oft-maligned Batman & Robin is laden with awful puns and illogical plans, the version of Mr. Freeze that appears in “Heart of Ice” is hell-bent on revenge to a degree that would make Hamlet blush. More than any other villain in the series motivated by vengeance, though, Mr. Freeze earns an astonishing amount of empathy once the audience discovers how the character has been wronged. As a result, the conflict in “Heart of Ice” becomes surprisingly personal and compelling for a villain-centric episode. The plot itself may be fairly simple, but the execution and pathos the episode evokes set it apart as one of the show’s best episodes.

Rachel Freeman – “On Leather Wings”

I chose this as my first choice for favorite because, well, it’s the first episode (although “The Cat and the Claw Part I” aired first) and because it features Man-Bat a.k.a. Doctor Kirk Langstrom, one of my favorite Batman villains. In this episode, a mysterious bat-like creature begins terrorizing Gotham City. Even though this is the first episode of the series, Batman has been Batman for a while at this point (they don’t do the cliché Episode 1 has to be an origin story). These “bat creature” sightings lead the police to pursue Batman. So, Batman must find the real criminal while evading the police, in order to clear his name.

This episode was clearly ahead of its time. How many Batman movies since this have been about “Batman needing to clear his name” in some way? There’s plenty. Anyway, this episode is great because of the duality of the Man-Bat/Kirk Langstrom. A great introduction to the world of Batman, a villain who became a villain because they were actually trying to do something good (which there are several Batman rogues who have done so). Kirk Langstrom was trying to improve humans and cure deafness using bat DNA, he tested the serum on himself and thus Man-Bat was created. He couldn’t control it though, so when the Man-Bat persona took over, Kirk Langstrom all but vanished. This puts Batman in a unique situation. He has to find a cure and return Langstrom to normal before the police take him down.

Marisa Carpico – “Harley’s Holiday”

As the show that invented Harley Quinn, Batman: The Animated Series had a significant hand in defining who the character is and this episode is one of her best. Harley mostly functioned as the Joker’s sidekick and girlfriend when the show began, but as it became more willing to examine the toxic aspects of that relationship, it also questioned whether Harley was as villainous as her paramour.

The episode begins with a fully-rehabilitated Harley’s release from Arkham, but then a simple misunderstanding quickly leads to Harley kidnapping Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend right in the middle of their shopping date. It’s a classic comedic setup that escalates perfectly, only to culminate in a sweet moment where even grumpy ol’ Bats has to admit that he and his rogues aren’t that different.

Daryn Kirscht – “Over the Edge”

On May 23, 1998, Batman: The New Animated Adventures (the revamped continuation to the original series) unveiled the epic and heartfelt episode, “Over the Edge,” which is quite possibly the best episode of the series. The incredible opening action sequence finds Commissioner Gordon and the Gotham Police Department breaking into Wayne Manor and chasing Batman and Robin down into the Batcave. With the help of Nightwing, they manage to hide and try to figure out what exactly happened, but Batman knows what caused all of this, which is the premise of the episode.

The casual viewer might be a little off-put by seeing Commissioner Gordon and Batman at each other’s throats over the incident involving Batgirl, but the beauty of this episode is within the title. It captures everyone’s situation perfectly as Gotham appears to be crumbling and losing its mind. All of the main characters are dealing with a major problem in their lives that make them mentally go off the deep end, including exposed secret identities, betrayal, and death. The major plot twists, character beats, surprising adult themes, and an effective, transitional ending that ties everything together makes for an action-packed episode of greatness. If Matt Reeves makes anything like this for The Batman with Ben Affleck (which we know is possible after Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes), we could be in for the best Batman movie yet.

Matthew Kelly – “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”

Batman is a contradiction. He is a tragic sociopath who takes himself incredibly seriously in an art form where grown men put on tights and beat up clowns. That contradiction has made most Batman adaptations focus too heavily one aspect of the character while ignoring the other. The Adam West Batman was wacky, but it never quite captured the darker aura of the comics. The Nolan trilogy was an artistic masterpiece, but there is something not quite right about a Batman movie that isn’t for kids. Only The Animated Series has successfully balanced both sides of the Dark Knight and “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” does it better than almost any other episode.

On one hand, The Riddler kidnaps an executive and nearly beheads him. On the other hand, Batman flys a golden hand of fate around a giant maze. The Animated Series never copped out. It made the morbid and the juvenile sing in perfect harmony. And that harmony is in the Key of C because it has no sharps, which is not only the answer to one of Riddler’s death traps, but also something Robin just happens to know because great Batman adaptations need both.

Rachel Freeman – “Tyger, Tyger”

This is my second episode choice because it’s actually my favorite episode. It’s also one of the saddest Batman stories ever. A genetic engineer, Dr. Emile Dorian (who is basically Dr. Moreau if you’ve ever read that book) has created a human-cat hybrid, whom he has named Tygrus. However, Tygrus is the only one of his kind, so Dr. Dorian decides to further his experiment by making a mate for Tygrus. Of course, he chooses Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman. Because cats. Batman travels to the island in order to rescue Selina (who has been turned into a cat-creature), but he must first survive a cat-and-mouse game as Tygrus hunts him through the jungle.

OK. To explain why I love this episode, I’m going to have to give some spoilers. Sorry. So, Tygrus is a very sad antagonist. Really, he’s not even bad. He was just created by Dr. Dorian one day and was utterly alone. All he wanted was a companion, someone like him. It was Dr. Dorian who decided to kidnap and mutate Selina. Tygrus also listens to Selina and allows her to change back. When he realizes how awful Dr. Dorian is, he helps Batman destroy the lab, where Dr. Dorian dies in the process. Although Selina and Batman offer for him to go with them, he decides to stay in the jungle. HOW SAD IS THAT?! Tygrus loses his mate, kills his creator (who is essentially his father), and then goes off to the jungle alone telling Selina, “There’s nothing for me anywhere.” It gives me the feels. Every. Time.

Sheena Fisher – “Pretty Poison”

I had to choose this episode because it’s an introduction to the villain Poison Ivy. She has always been my favorite little eco-terrorist. Doctor Pamela Isley is a college professor that teaches courses on extinct plants. Her specialty lies in plants that can have poison derived from them. So, what happens when a beautiful and intelligent woman is angry that you’ve built a prison where some endangered roses are growing? She plans for years to find the best way to take you down and get revenge.

Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne work together to break ground on what Pamela has decided is sacred because of the endangered rose. Fast forward a few years and Bruce is meeting Harvey for dinner. Harvey introduces Bruce to his fiancée of two weeks, Pamela. As she is leaving she makes sure to give Harvey a very long and passionate kiss right in front of Bruce. Shortly after, Harvey lands face first in his food. Bruce puts the pieces together quickly and goes to Pamela’s house to confront her. And, that’s where we meet the one and only Poison Ivy. The fight scene between the two is ridiculous thanks to some of her babies (large carnivorous plants) lending a helping hand. But, in the end, Batman is  victorious.

Alisha Weinberger – “Beware the Gray Ghost”

The late, great Adam West guest starred as struggling actor Simon Trent and Bruce Wayne’s childhood TV hero, the Gray Ghost. After Gotham is hit by a wave of Gray Ghost themed bombings, Batman must enlist the help of the very masked avenger that once inspired him as a child. It isn’t very often we get insight into the childhood of Bruce Wayne prior to the death of his parents. “Beware the Gray Ghost” is the most bittersweet of the animated series’ episodes because it makes you realize Batman never grew up. Bruce Wayne died alongside his parents, and from there on it has always just been Batman.

This further hits home with Kevin Conroy offsetting Bruce’s voice with an air of naiveté, speaking to the Gray Ghost not as fiction but as a real hero. And for a moment, Batman gets to be a kid again. That delineation between the childhood of Bruce and the adulthood of Batman is complimented by some sharp editing and sound design throughout the episode. Juxtaposing jaunty black-and-white footage of the Gray Ghost to dismal, twilight bathed shots of Batman to roaring explosions. You can truly appreciate that separation, if not loss, of his childhood. It almost goes without saying how fitting it is to have Adam West voice the Gray Ghost as well. As Simon Trent was a hero to young Bruce, West was and still very much is Batman to many.

Aaron Sarnecky – “The Clock King”

I wanted to take the time to appreciate an episode of Batman: The Animated Series featuring a lesser-known villain. And, as it so happens, time is front and center in this episode. “The Clock King” features the titular character plotting his revenge against the mayor for inadvertently ruining his life. It’s a simple tale that nicely fills the 22-minute runtime.

The Clock King doesn’t have any powers. He’s just a guy who obsesses over time and uses it to his advantage. He also comes up with a clever death trap that really pushes Batman to his limit. I wouldn’t say it’s an amazing episode. For instance, Batman strangely lets Alfred drive him places while he’s in costume. However, if you just want a good self-contained story, “The Clock King” does just the trick.

Bill Bodkin – “Feat of Clay, Parts I and II” and “Mudslide”

Clayface, brilliantly voiced by Ron Perlman, was my absolute favorite character in Batman: The Animated Series.

It was one of the first times I ever saw a sympathetic side of a villain — something this animated series became known for. Clayface’s origin, told in “Feat of Clay” was that he was a famed actor who was horribly disfigured. He used a special kinda of clay mask to help reshape his looks, but this was only temporary. He soon became an addict to the drug, and turned to crime, and soon murderous vengeance against the clay’s creator when he wouldn’t give him the supply he needed. Well, he got the supply in the end — being immersed into it and turned in the beast known as Clayface.

While this episode was cool, “Mudslide” is what you got you. In it, we find that Clayface is being nursed back to healthy by a doctor who had been in love with him forever. He is now confined to a place suit where he can maintain human form, but that lasts only a bit as he breaks free, and he has an epic confrontation with Batman. The tragedy here is that the battle takes place in the rain and Clayface goes off a cliff. Batman grabs his arm, but  the rain makes his clay arm melt away, and he plummets to his death in the ocean below.

It’s truly one of the saddest and most impactful moments in a cartoon ever.

Dan Cohen – “Riddler’s Reform”

The Riddler was only used three times as a primary character in Batman: The Animated Series. While the other two episodes involve a maze and a virtual reality simulation, it’s “Riddler’s Reform” that I appreciate much more as an adult. This is the episode that truly gets into the psyche of who the Riddler is.

Much like every other villain, the Riddler gets released from Arkham Asylum. Within hours of his release, Batman is already watching the green suited menace like a hawk. As it turns out, the Riddler has gotten a sweet gig as a toy designer. His inventions are making huge bucks. Women swoon over him. He even publicly humiliates Batman. Life is good. Despite all that, the Riddler can’t help himself, and Batman knows it. He can’t live without riddle crimes. The Riddler decides to do the only logical thing – kill Batman. Once he eliminates his intellectual equal, the Riddler can truly retire.

The Riddler seemingly builds the perfect death trap. There is absolutely no escape. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Batman survives. This is where Batman becomes a coldhearted bastard. He tricks the Riddler into admitting his crimes on the promise he reveals how he made it out. Not only does this send the Riddler back to Arkham, but Batman reneges on his promise. Wow. What an asshole.

While Batman’s escape is a tad lazy, it’s the last scene of this episode that truly cements it as one of the best in the entire series. The Riddler is back at Arkham screaming like a mad man. He can’t mentally handle not knowing the answer to a question.

That’s the Riddler.

Laura Dengrove – “Mad Love”

You see it on shirts at Hot Topic all the time, but do you know the true meaning of such a phrase? This New Animated Adventures episode is a staple of any true Harley fan, and of the show in its entirety. Scummy box office bombs such as Suicide Squad wanted to romanticize this tale, but nothing romantic lies within the confines of abuse and destruction of the human spirit. Within the episode, we are finally told the tale of how Joker and our Harley met, and what turned to love for her was nothing but an elaborate ruse and way to the pass the time for good ol’ Joker.

When it comes to character development and plot, and for you to finally understand who Harley is and why true fans love her so, not only is this episode a must-see, but it’s the one for you. Please don’t be fooled by what this term has become in our modern age though. When I see children tell me they want a love like Harley and the Joker, I cry a little inside as I picture the once promising doctor being thrown out a window for simply not getting the “joke.” Love stories like these aren’t love at all…they are tragedies.

Laura’s Special Mentions:

  1. “Perchance to Dream”
  2. “The Laughing Fish”
  3. “Trial”
  4. “House & Garden”
  5. “His Silicon Soul”
Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.